Education • 02 March, 2018

Assiya Baqdaulet: There is no close relationship between filmmakers and critics in Kazakhstan

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Assiya Baqdaulet is a student of the Queen Mary University of London.  She is a journalist and film critic. We had an interview about studying abroad, education system in the UK and films.

Education & Abroad

- Assiya, can you share your feelings about the capital of Great Britain?

- What a newcomer in London could feel except excitement?! It is a fascinating place especially for a theatre-art-and-film-lover, whom I regard myself. London abounds with the world-greatest museums, the most exciting musicals and the highest rated theatre plays. There are some exhibitions presented, lectures were given, and other cultural events organized every day. Apart from that, it is a vibrant cosmopolitan city; it is common to see people speaking different languages, to try foods and restaurants from all over the world. It is a place you feel yourself a part of the world, and at the same time, you embrace your own identity more enthusiastically: London invites to explore the word’s divergence and encourages everyone to be oneself.

- Why did you decide to study in the UK?

- Because the UK has some best-rated universities in the world and its unique culture was of my great interest since childhood. The English are very traditional and seem conservative in a sense, yet they are indeed very modern: they absorb, maybe create some of the most up-to-date trends. This is very true of ourselves; Kazakhstan values its history and traditions, yet future-aspired country. I felt this similarity in a spirit that is why I have decided to study in the UK.

- What differences did you notice between studying in the UK and in Kazakhstan?

- It is a completely different, and I hope, useful experience. In the UK, students are expected to perform independent study abilities and critical thinking. In the post-Soviet countries and such cultures as China, teachers lead the class and propose selected standpoints. In contrast, here the lecturer can offer different contradicted viewpoints. The critical evaluation and engagement of them, and consequently, the decision on standpoint is up to students. While in Kazakhstan, schools, or higher education institutions are seen as the authority, teaching how to obey, in the UK they teach to develop critical thinking. The British lecturers are more open to questions and keen on listening to different opinions. Clearly, styles vary, but the most common pattern of teaching in the UK is that students are more involved in discussions and are invited to express an opinion. That’s probably because western societies view teachers and students equally entitled to argue. An understanding of the material is primary, but not enough: you are expected to produce an original piece of academic work. That is why everyone is studying hard. There is no room for scolding students like teachers in Kazakhstan do, students realize that they study for their own good.

Besides, UK universities have more opportunities in terms of getting involved in sports; likewise, there are plenty of student and volunteering organizations to work with. Libraries are open 24 hours except for bank holidays. They are better equipped; module system makes the studying process more convenient. The schools provide desired students both information on the class structure and necessary materials in advance. These make hard to go to class unprepared. Campuses have many cosy spaces for eating and chatting, with free (and not) tea and coffee. They also provide part-time jobs for students or help with finding jobs elsewhere. There are free in-sessional courses to improve academic writing, effective presentation skills and so on. One could subscribe to any number of these courses, which are great opportunity to develop academic skills while socializing with new people. In the UK, especially in London, you are in the multinational milieu, which gives a chance to explore different cultures and make friends from all over the world!

Journalism & Media

- I know that you have worked as a journalist for several years in Kazakhstan. Why have you decided to study Film studies? Why not journalism?

- I do not think I have completely changed my occupation. As a journalist, I was writing reviews and articles on films and theatre plays. At some point I found myself being more curious about cinema, I devoted my leisure time to exploring cinema-world, and could not help being drawn to it. After graduating, I hope to write on cinema as well, but in a level that is more academic.

Why have I chosen Film Studies instead journalism? Well, firstly I have already completed masters in journalism. I believe that Film Studies is an extremely important and vibrant discipline where present-day ideas are being circulated about films and ever-changing realities. It is obvious that human culture now has become a watching culture, not a reading one whether we like it or not. The most powerful of visual cultures is film, and yet, Film Studies occupies margins of academic studies. It is weird how cinema is disregarded. Lenin’s famous citation that ‘cinema is the most important arts’ remains true. The knowledge of the world, of the history, comes from films. They shape minds; therefore, when violated as a propaganda tool, it manipulates people’s consciousness. Being able to critically engage with films, therefore, is necessary now, more than ever. There are debates around a film, whether it should be regarded an equal source of history as written history, some historians arguing that films should be taught in history classes. As some of my fellow scholars, I would argue that Films should be taught in schools as well as literature or history are. In the world dominated by visual culture, everyone is entitled to be aware of ‘codes’ of images.

- Should we study journalism at universities?

- This question is indicative of the changes needed in the Faculties’ curriculum. All of this ‘should or not’ stem from the fact that not all journalists are trained to be journalists and yet successful within the profession, whereas not every single university-trained journalist remains in the Media.

 Nevertheless, it is the case with more or less all the creative professions. There are successful writers with a technical background, not every actor studied acting, not every filmmaker was trained at Film school. However, if observing more broadly, no country with non-existent journalism school or tradition have demonstrated any impressing level of democracy. If we are to destroy journalism schools, of course, Media would still operate, we would get philologists writing in newspapers without grammar mistakes, we would get better looking and more popular celebrity presenters, but we will lose journalists. Society needs to be prepared for challenges to come, if we destroyed journalism schools, we destroy a civil voice. The fact that people ask this question more and more shows that there is a crisis in journalism. I would suggest revising curriculums as I mentioned before. Different countries have different approaches in this respect.

In the USA, for instance, one can study cultural journalism, law journalism, sports journalism, broadcast journalism, and so on. In Kazakhstan, it’s ‘all-inclusive’. You may choose any subject, but it needs more grit and individual learning from students if they are to succeed in the profession. Unfortunately, not every student is aware of this, as they are not even trained to be specific in their interests. Consequently, a tendency to generalize results in poor performance. In the UK universities courses as political communication, new media, digital media, script writing, magazine journalism and newspaper journalism are taught separately. If browsed websites of foreign universities, one could see a wide arrange of programs for Media Studies and Journalism: in a no progressive country it is being rejected.

Film & Review

- How you came to be interested in film?

- Well, I was and still am interested in different forms of arts. While working for Almaty Akshamy, my editor and mentor Qali Sarsenbai would ask me to write reviews for film premieres. Then, I guess, I started to read everything available on film, even I started to learn English due to the Film: I wanted to watch interviews with my favourite filmmakers, to read how contemporary films are being analyzed in the English-speaking world, or familiarize myself with screenplays of the best movies. I realized then that film is an unending journey, it became my passion.

-  Is it a good time or a bad time to be a film critic in Kazakhstan?

- I do not necessarily think that there can be particularly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ times for that. We all know film industry in Kazakhstan was reignited; quite everyone is interested in making films. In artistic terms, I would argue that film is the leading form of art at the moment.

- How would you describe the current situation in the Kazakh Film industry?

- Attempts. Every filmmaker is trying to do what he or she assumes is right or relevant. Auteur directors try to get state funding or rebel in such forms as ‘Partizan movement’. They do not enjoy popularity with audiences, but this is the premise: they are in an attempt to be truthful to society. More commercially oriented filmmakers rush into the industry without any prior knowledge and in the most successful examples create something funny. Some of them may try to address our everyday life, but a lack of experience is evident, with no hope of artistic significance. Tarkovsky lamented that films are regarded as disposable gums, being thrown away once seen. This is the exact state of matters. Not only in Kazakhstan, but in every country in the world. However, I hope a good taste for cinema can be cultivated.

- What is that? Why?

- This is the tricky question to ask a film student. It is really hard to name the film. Because of different historical contexts, in different countries, different assumptions on film prevail. And these assumptions give birth to various film movements. Some films may adore for their complexity and artistic elaborateness, others for simplicity. There too many great films I adore, that I am afraid to dismiss any of them. Let me just skip this question. 

- What are the main disadvantages of Kazakh films?

- A lack of professionalism in the most of so-called commercial or mainstream outputs. A poorly established production processes. A weak distribution practice, due to its relatively small audiences, Kazakh films cannot compete with Hollywood, Bollywood or Russian films. According to distributors, it is unreasonable to invest more than $ 300 000 in domestic movies. Although the budget is not the only or not the most important factor which affects film’s quality, it is of great significance. The film industry is still polarized with academy-trained artistically ambitious directors and newcomers without any knowledge of or experience in the field. Despite all of that, I am quite positive about Kazakh cinema: newcomers will gain experience, let us see how they will develop. Our film school is quite strong, not very well known abroad though. Occasions of prizes in festivals might lead to more recognition.

- What kind of films do we need?

- I assume issues of national identity are still important for us. It feels like we still need a reflection on our history. The movie Qazaq Khandygy is a good example. Alash figures and intellectuals of the early 20th century and their roles as activists of national liberation still need some cinematic discovery. As you know, their intellectual power was immense, and every distinct Kazakh academic discipline was established due to their perseverance. I am waiting for films on this topic.

Concerning commercial films, one could argue that post-soviet countries struggle with the long-ago-injected notion of social determinism. Put simply, people seem to think that somebody else: society, government, or employers are responsible for their choices, lives. It is the comfortable position to occupy when the world is seen as a place where one has to rely on fortune and relax. However, it leads to annulling of human will. I personally would be pleased to watch more libertarianism films, which could stimulate people to take action, to aspire to success, to take responsibility for their own lives.

- To what degree Kazakh producers’ are ready to accept criticism? Why we need this?

- Again, this question indicates how underrated Film Studies is. Why are there festivals like Cannes, Venice, or Locarno? Why are people drawn to Academy Awards, BAFTA and Golden Globe? Because a film is an art form, an ideological tool, a source of entertainment and a means of making money at the same time. Intentions in making films vary, and accordingly, responses differ. I do not think critics are there for producers, they are there for audiences. I assume that mainstream movies need examining since they are projections of some sort, of the viewers’ wants and desires. Auteur statements, on the other hand, could raise the most urgent questions of the time, inviting moviegoers to think and reflect. That is why they could require more attention from film scholars, which can shed light on their artistic merits or implications.

I would not say there is a close relationship between filmmakers and critics in Kazakhstan. I would not even say that film criticism, as well as any kind of art criticism in Kazakhstan, is doing well. In regards to mainstream cinema, even in the UK or USA newspaper and journal criticism is not as influential as it was before. Ratings on such online resources as RottenTomatoes and IMDB are more valuable for filmgoers. On the other hand, such an occasional criticism is never as comprehensive as a professional one. Film is the most complicated art form, where camera angle and movement, light, mise-en-scene, acting, editing, sound design, costumes – everything is important, and it needs experienced viewers, or film enthusiasts (whom I regard critics) to appreciate a film crew’s craft. A criticism per se is not the aim; the aim is an acknowledgement of the professional and artistic merits of filmmakers if there are some.

- Do critics have standards?

- ‘Standard’ is a too loud word in this context. Film critics have film theory and criticism approaches to be guided by psychoanalysis, genre studies, apparatus theory, and philosophy of film language theory and so on. My background is journalism, where your writing per se ought to engage readers; hence, it is easy to exaggerate virtues and vices. Film theorists are more coldhearted that is why their writing could attract fewer audiences. However, both of these institutions occupy their essential roles in film reception.

- Some advice for aspiring film critics?

- You have to love films. This is the key. If you love films, you will be interested enough to read on film history and theory just for fun. If you love films, you will feel happy while exploring a fascinating world of cinema.

- Thank you!


Interviewed by Madina Kerimkulova

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